Your Epic Guide to Retinol and Acne: How it Works (and should you be using it..?)


If you’ve been curious about the benefits of retinol for acne, but a little confused and intimidated by it all, then this is the blog for you! This simple guide explains what it is, and how “retinoid” based skincare gets down to business in clearing your complexion, and restoring your confidence!

Indefinitely, the core issues and insecurities surrounding acne are the same for everybody, no matter what age, or phase of life journeying through. Acne, that evil “four letter word” doesn’t discriminate; and as saddening as it may sound, it can impose a deeply dimorphic, distorted sense of self—making it’s worst victims feel downright hideous, and wanting to hide their faces from the world! 

Even more frustrating than having to bare a face erupted in bumps and blemishes to the outside world and workforce, are the inevitable “cracks & crinkles” that seem to suddenly make their creep-move on the sly as we “incline” in age—adding another element of fury to the battle of the breakouts! Yikes, I know this predicament all too well! For most everyone, finding a sustainable solution that will actually work, and prove to not be a waste of wishful thinking (and money $) is the real battle! Luckily for you guys, I’m happy to offer a little insight from both my personal experience and over a decade’s worth devoted to helping people clear their acne as a licensed esthetician with a private skincare practice. The widely buzzed, but little understood ingredient called retinol, (similar, but different to Retin-A), can be a game-changer for many acne sufferers that have exhausted all efforts in their pursuit to a healthier, clearer looking complexion! I’ll explain everything you’ll need to know about retinol and how it works within the skin in a way that’s painfully easy to understand so hopefully, you’ll feel more confident, inspired, and informed when you’re ready to purchase and begin using a retinol product on your own!

Retinol to the Rescue!

I started experimenting with retinol on my skin in my earlier esthetician years, as I had heard and seen a lot of buzz and praise about the touted vitamin A miracle among industry professionals and was considering it as a supplemental addition to the products available for my clients to purchase for accelerated results their home care regimes. In doing extensive reading and research on on the stuff, I learned that it was not only helpful in restoring youth and radiance to aging skin, but it could also be a powerful and promising tool for clearing acne. In experimenting with retinol on my own skin (as I ALWAYS do before recommending or selling anything to my clients) I was pleasantly surprised by the way it went to fairy quickly in smoothing my complexion and definitely helping to diminish break-outs! I immediately thereafter stocked it in my retail shelves at my spa so I could share in the marked clarity and luminance I was achieving with my clients struggling with the same issues, as the results where rewarding and clear to see!

Since then, I want to kick myself in the behind for not doing it sooner. Retinol has been one of the sharpest tools in my skin care arsenal for not just in proving to be a divine savior for innumerable acne sufferers struggling with varying degrees of skin acnes ranging anywhere from adolescence to adult-onset acne cases, but in also restoring youth and radiance to the skin! I’ve personally grown to praise it and use it religiously as part of my nightly ritual and try to “plant the seed” in my clients , encouraging them to embrace this vitamin A miracle at every opportunity I get. If I could put everybody on it, I would! I believe retinol is hands down one of the most miraculous, ever-evolving breakthroughs celebrated in skin science today!

More people should be using it!

It seems that retinol can benefit most any person, so why aren’t more people using this stuff? Truth is, with all the hype and misconceptions surrounding Retinol, RETIN-A,  Retin-A Micro, Renova, and the likes, it’s confusing and intimidating as hell to for even some of the savviest skin care professionals to keep up with, none-the-less mind-boggling for the consumer!

I believe this confusion coupled with an overwhelmingly saturated sea of skin care products marketed in every media claiming to be the next best cutting-edge discovery is what’s deviated millions of people from experiencing for themselves the wonders retinol can truly work in their skin-and that’s truly a shame!

Similar but Different (Retinol and RETIN-A are not the same!)

First off, I’ll bet 90% of people confuse retinol with RETIN-A, probably because they sound so similar! For various and obvious noted reasons, people usually assimilate them as one in the same product with the same functions and side-effects! Oftentimes if someone hears another squawk about a terrible experience endured with “RETIN-A” and how it “dried-out and parched their skin” making them “really red” and “peeling like a snake for weeks…”, they’ll automatically assume that retinol is the same exact thing and avoid it like the plague! It’s really a shame that retinol gets a bad rap when if fact is it a heck of a lot less aggravating and a whole lot more loving and forgiving on the skin than it’s cunning counterpart (RETIN-A)!

Truth be told, prescription strength RETIN-A a.k.a. Tretinoin can truly do some miraculous things for increasing exfoliation, clearing clogged pores, aiding in skin clarity and restoring marked youth to the skin. But it certainly can be very harsh and stimulating on the skin, and for some—too much so. Retinol on the other hand, is the next best runner-up for those with sensitive and inflamed skin (like acne) with many of  the same benefits of RETIN-A, but with little to minimal side effects.

So this blog has come to fruition as I’m ready for once and for all (and for the vanity of mankind) to clear the air on all the misunderstandings and misconceptions surrounding RETIN-A and retinol, and help you to understand the differences between the two!

So,..RETIN-A—What is it?

RETIN-A is a branded, prescription-strength tube of a topical skin-rejuvenating medication called, Tretinoin, and is commonly prescribed by a medical doctor such as a dermatologist. RETIN-A contains a concentration (usually ranging between .025-1%) of “retinoic acid” a.k.a vitamin A acid. Similar compositions and generics include: Retin-A Micro, Renova, Refissa, Differin, and many others. It’s important to note that the term “retinoid” simply refers to the acid compound of vitamin A (which also happens to be where the skin-clearing and rejuvenating magic is)! Retinoid containing medications are typically applied to the skin topically and acclimated in small, incremental doses. RETIN-A, when understood and used correctly and consistently, remarkably reduces skin acne and helps preserve the youth and integrity of the skin’s cellular functions; encouraging it to act and behave in a more healthy and youthful manner!

History of Retinoids

When Tretinoin was debuted to the pharmaceutical industry around the 1960’s, it was exclusively intended for the treatment of acne. The vitamin A acid in these retinoid containing prescriptions were clinically proven (and continue to be in numerous conclusive studies today) to be a miraculously effective breakthrough in clearing impacted pores and skin acnes in patient trials. If these retinoid rewards weren’t remarkable enough, it wasn’t very long thereafter that clinicians observed one unbelievably, almost too-good-to-be-true side effect; a notable reduction in fine lines and wrinkles along with increased luminance and skin suppleness in those being treated! RETIN-A soon began to undergo an array of studies that proved to be exhaustive and conclusive in being outstandingly effective for not just acne, but as a cutting-edge age management miracle quickly renowned to be the closest thing to the fountain of youth! Check out this study on both RETIN-A and retinol indexed in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (1).

However, with all things seeming too good to be true, there was one major hang-up..

The Retin-A Culprit

RETIN-A and concentrated retinoic acid topicals were causing some serious skin sensitivities in many users, including: marked dryness, dermatitis, irritation, redness, and relentless skin peeling! Many found the stuff to be intolerable despite using the it exactly as directed and decreasing dosages. No doubt RETIN-A is some pretty miraculous stuff, and I wish we could all use it, but unless you’ve got a skin like a rhinoceros, it’s just not for everyone. Furthermore, acne can be further exasperated and inflamed by this marked irritation and over-stimulation.

It’s important that I emphasize that some skin sensitivity, dryness, and flaking are normal during the few weeks into months, however, some, despite using the product diligently as directed can never quite acclimate to it and have to end up doing away with it. Unfortunately, the case for me as well as the feedback I’ve received from a number of my clients.

Retinol to the Rescue

Ahh, and then alas, science found a way to create a more loving and forgiving substitute, thus retinol was born! Simply put, retinol can best be described as an essential “building-block” or precursor to “retinoic acid” A.K.A. vitamin A acid; that is, it helps make retinoic acid; and converts to retinoic acid in small, incremental doses once it’s in the skin. Though, it’s not as potent and powerful as RETIN-A, for many, that’s a good thing! It’s still wonderfully effective and clinically proven to benefit the skin in sharing in the same renowned benefits and properties of Retin-A/Tretinoin with minimal side effects!

As a plus, retinol is usually blended with other beneficial ingredients that help calm, hydrate, and supplement the skin with vital anti-oxidants that synergise with the active A to give you optimal results with as little to no sensitivity as possible!

Vitamin A containing retinol occurs naturally in beta carotene-rich foods such as: carrots, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, apricots, papaya, peaches, cantaloupes, raw tomatoes, and even spinach, however, the skin is the very last organ to receive the skin-beautifying benefits from our food consumption , as the majority is used internally within our bodies for it’s vital biological processes. It’s always most beneficial to the skin to both eat a balanced diet with an array of nutrients including vitamin A rich sources as well as supplement topically with a good quality vitamin A/retinol serum like our Retinol Gel Elixir (1 oz)

Key Retinol Benefits

To recap, Retinoids including retinol are clinically proven to:

• Rapidly increases the skin’s natural rate of cell turnover in a process called “desquamation”, which is just a fancy way of saying your skin stays more exfoliated which in turn, drastically helps to clear clogged pores and acne. This constant exfoliation jump start keeps dead skin cells, viscous skin oils and other follicular debris at bay from blocking and lining of the pore follicles!

• Inhibit the breakdown of collagen and synthesize the production of more collagen! It helps to thicken the dermal matrix pad comprised that of collagen, fibroblasts, and natural hyaluronic acid-increasing elasticity and firmness!

• Encourages areas of discoloration, uneven tone, and dark spots (from sun damage and/or old breakouts) to dissipate by normalizing the cellular functions of the skin’s color cells known an “melanocytes”. It encourages your skin’s tone to even-out and disperse pigment more evenly!

• Add marked radiance and glow to your complexion!

Retinol in short, encourages the skin to act, replicate, and function in a more healthy, youthful manner while increasing collagen, elasticity, normalizing cellular functions, and reducing acne impactions by increasing the skin’s natural rate of exfoliation.

(…I’m telling you, everybody can benefit from this stuff!)

Retinol and Realistic Expectations

I always tell my clients to think of retinol as like taking a vitamin, you don’t always see it and feel it working in your skin, but over time it unveils it magic! Over the course of years and a lifetime, and it will truly help save your skin—even if the results are not clear to see right away. 

Be patient and steady and give your skin it’s daily dose of retinol like you would a vitamin! Though you’ll probably note a definite improvement in your skin’s overall clarity and luminance within the first couple weeks, more complex issues such as hyperpigmentation, deep-set wrinkles, and stubborn acne may take longer to see improvement. Retinol is something you need to get on and stay on for the years and decades to come.

How do I use Retinol?

Most retinol-containing products will direct you to begin slowly using only the recommended dose every other night (as I would) working towards a nightly application ritual. This is just to ensure that your skin gets used to being exposed to incremental amounts of trans-retinoic acid in the beginning. If slight dryness or sensitivity occurs, don’t worry as a little is normal and to be expected! Simply decrease usage if bothersome to every other night, or every-third night working towards an eventual nightly application. A little trick is to wait about 30 minutes after cleansing to apply your retinol (to allow some of the natural oils and lipids in your skin to rise up acting as a bit of a barrier) and/or apply a thin layer of moisturizer under your application. Retinol is typically applied all over the face and even down the into the neck and decollete after cleansing. Avoid applying too close around the eyes, lips, and crevasses of the nose (as these areas tend to be sensitive).

Religious daily sunscreen use of at least SPF 30 is absolutely mandatory when using a retinol product! Since retinol effectively increases your natural rate of cell turn over or exfoliation, it leaves the skin more vulnerable and susceptible to UV damage.

Avoid Retinol If:

• Doing any kind of facial (lip, chin, cheeks) or brow waxing (unless you discontinue use for at least 3-5 days prior to the waxing appointment!) Reason being is that retinoids erode away the top, epidermal layer of the skin (which is comprised of dead skin cells) that can normally act as a protective barrier mechanism from hot wax and sunshine.

• You’re pregnant and nursing.

• You’re planning on being directly exposed to UV rays for a any length of time such as: vacationing, going to the beach, gardening, running outside, and other activities that require you to be outdoors directly exposed to the sun. Especially if you are not smart about wearing SPF, sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat! It’s one thing to walk from the car into the grocery store, but its quite another to bask in the sun for hours on end. If you cant be disciplined enough to wear sunscreen religiously, retinol is not for you.

• You’re using other exfoliating products such as a harsh scrub or AHA cream or serum (alpha & beta hydroxyl acids such as glycolic, salicylic, etc.). The retinol in itself is resurfacing enough and should take the place of any exfoliating products.


Starting Recommendation:

  • Start with a retinol concentration of between .05-.08% like our Retinol Youth Elixir (if you have normal to dry skin), or Retinol Gel Elixir (if you have normal to oily skin). Essentially, they are the same exact formula and strength, but offer different consistencies from a light-weight gel, to a silkier, more emollient formula to accommodate different skin types.


  • Find a retinol product with the first few ingredients listed as retinol, retinol oil, or retinol palmitate!


  • Avoid buying cheap, over the counter formulas misleadingly bottled in beautiful packaging. These kinds of OTC products tend to have a lower quality and quantity of retinol and are often filled to the brim with “buffers” or “fillers”. Research the label for known harmful and toxic ingredients as well as additives that have minimal to no therapeutic benefits to the skin that manufacturers mass market to make a quick buck. Oftentimes the ole adage “You get what you pay” for holds true”.


  • Search for retinol products that contain other beneficial ingredients like anti-inflammatories, anti-oxidants, and hydrating additives like: As a note: studies show that anti-oxidants are extraordinarily beneficial to in fighting inflammation by combating free-radical bombardment in skin cells which leads to lipid peroxidation within cellular membranes; in which is a huge factor in in treating stubborn acne, hyperpigmentation, and a host of other skin issues! 


  • Always wear a broad-spectrum, chemical-free sun protection during the day with an SPF of at least 30 in addition to a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when skipping around in the sunshine! Look for non-toxic, and non-nano mineral-based sunscreens comprised of ingredient like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Solar Shield (1 oz) is a safe, non-toxic option that will most definitely protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays! Always apply liberally with the full recommended amount listed on the directions (no matter how heavy it may seem) and reapply ever two hours or after coming in contact with water!
  • Have a quality moisturizer on hand while acclimating to retinol and use it liberally! This makes a HUGE difference! My favorite retinol hack is to add mix a little moisturizer to my retinol together in the palm of my hand and then apply it to my face. Some professionals may argue that it’s best to apply retinol over moisturizer in a layering system, but I don’t care. I know that for me mixing them together works fantastic and really gives it a great “slip” in helping me smooth the product over my skin. I’ve been able to achieve optimal results this way and my skin stays calm and hydrated. Citrus Shea Moisture Cream (2 oz) is my absolute favorite for daily use and I love the consistency and scent! If your skin is very oily and you prefer an oil-free, ultra-sheer consistency, then Sheer Hydration Oil-Free Moisture (2oz) will be the perfect pick for you!
  • During the first week of use, don’t get overly enthusiastic and apply too much too soon. Patience is the name of the game. Apply the retinol exactly as directed every other night in the beginning. If the skin becomes dry, flakey or over-sensitized, simply back off a bit and decrease your nightly dosages. You can work towards increasing your amount of nightly applications in time as your skin gets acclimated.
  • Wait about 30 minutes after cleansing to apply retinol! This will allow for a bit of the oil and lips in your own skin to surface and act as a little extra protective barrier mechanism before application!
  • Make sure you pick a retinol formula that’s packed in a solid, opaque, glass bottle or tube. Never buy a retinol product that comes in a jar. Oxidation and light exposure will inhibit the preservation and longevity of the retinol.



Is Retinol Worth It? (Heck yes!)

Not only has it helped my clients and I tremendously in preventing the vicious cycle of acne flare-up’s, it feels good to know that consistent use of retinol has be scientifically proven to do remarkable things for youth preservation (and will surely stave off a wrinkle or two as we grow older). Every woman over the age 25 should get on it and stay on it for the years and decades to come!

Still a little unsure if retinol is right for your skin? Feel free to contact me for a free email consultation unique to your concerns and complexion


Share what your what your experiences have been with either with retinol or Retin-A/Tretinoin? Have you found one to be more helpful or favorable over the other?

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